Matt Riley, Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge

Museum Magic

Working with the best collections for my new series

Sometimes I have to pinch myself. One beautiful crisp morning last week I found myself heading into town on my cargo bike, before the shops opened and the crowds of tourists poured in; drinking in the beautiful Cambridge architecture basking in the spring sunshine.


I have finished my series of 5 paintings: Everyday Magic which explored six natural ingredients arranged into compositions- or spells, highlighting the healing power of nature and the timeless quality of these natural finds, connecting us to millions of ancestors who have also taken meaning and strength from the signs in nature they found around them.


The series may be finished, but I find that I am far from finished with the subject. In fact, having just started reading “The History of Magic: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present.” by Chris Gosden, I’m keen to dig deeper into magic and its role in our lives.


I want to make larger paintings, combining more items, including bones and fossils. So I found myself wondering how I could get my hands on some bones. Luckily, before that train of thought became too sinister, I remembered the amazing resources on my doorstep via the University of Cambridge. We are lucky enough to have many amazing museums with remarkable collections, which are free to view, and of course what you see in the museum is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is available in the stores. 


My first port of call has been the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. Walking around trying to decide what to draw and include in my paintings was like being a kid in a sweetshop! So much to choose from! Do you want your fossil in slate, clay, chalk or granite?



Going in early, before the museum opened, via the staff access I felt a bit like Harry Potter entering Hogwarts for the first time! Beautiful dark-wood cases filled from floor to ceiling with specimens, tiled staircases unseen by the public and purposeful students and staff speaking in hushed tones in the downstairs study area.


Including fossils in this series gives the work a deep-time dimension which I find extremely pleasing. Connecting us across millions of years is the constant force of nature and the cycles of life.


Matt Riley, Collections Manager, was incredibly welcoming and supportive, giving me a little lesson on all the items I selected, and leading me to the best possible specimens. I was allowed to work directly from the objects, in an office, rather than though the glass in the gallery. Lifting them out of their tray and onto the museum foam to draw was especially exciting; feeling the weight and the solidness of the pieces I selected, gave me a chance to understand their form intimately. 


Working in the office with Matt getting on with his day at the desk next to me was an added bonus and an insight into the museum world. Someone arrived to collect the trolly to study the trilobites, mid-morning a researcher came all the way from Germany came to collect some slides and discuss unclassified collections. School parties bustled noisily past the office, exclaiming and marvelling at the bones and the “big spider”, at lunchtime a colourful character in a kilt came to ask about a rock formation he had seen in Sierra Leone. These interesting and entertaining distractions felt so far away from my normal working day and enriched the whole experience. 


I managed to sketch out an initial impression of 4 fossils directly onto the boards of my newly started paintings. Because of the limitations of the materials I can use in the museums I have had to take lots of photos to finish them at home in the studio, where the only distraction will be the chickens “announcing” their eggs. 



Every moment of my day last week was a pleasure, from the cycle ride in, parking my bike under the watchful eye of a dinosaur, to the challenge of trying to capture the complex details of the Cidaris- an urchin-like creature.



I sometimes wish I had my own media and PR team, so I could not use drawing time to relay these wonderful experiences to you!  Maybe one day! In the meantime my plan is to finish what I started in the Sedgwick Museum and to visit the Zoology Museum next. The collections manager there (also helpfully called Matt!) has asked what I want to look at. Rather mind bogglingly they have a choice of basically EVERYTHING! Working out what I want to see without falling down the rabbit hole of browsing their stores has been tricky! I’ll keep you posted on the next phase!


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